November 25, 2022

Children’s book authors tackle mental illness, illness and death

Children’s books grow.

We buy more. According to the NPD group, sales of fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults increased by 17% this year, compared to the pre-pandemic baseline of 2019.

And there’s not just more children’s literature in bookstores, school libraries, and on our little ones’ shelves. Today’s tomes – especially picture books – feature mature content. Children’s book authors examine complex emotions like fear, anger, and jealousy. They are confronted with frightening subjects like mental illness, disease and death. And many of the characters are diverse, featuring LGBTQ personalities and people of all shapes, sizes, races, and backgrounds, as well as people with disabilities.

“There was a time when we wanted to keep kids safe from these problems; that time is now behind us,” said Naren Aryal, CEO and publisher of the Northern Virginia-based children’s imprint Books on mascots. “But we’re learning as a society that it’s better to talk about those things that haven’t been said in the past.”

Children’s book authors have been writing complicated stories for children since the 1960s, said Carl Lennertz, editor of the children’s book council. These books, however, were the exceptions, and children who had not grown up white in a nuclear family continued to be tampered with in children’s literature. This despite the success of Jewish author Ezra Jack Keats, who won an award in 1962 snow day, about a black boy playing in the snow.

In 2015, independent children’s book publisher Lee & Low published a survey that looked at diversity in the book industry and reported 2% of children’s books were written by black authors and featured black children. Latinos were treated the same. Publishers increased the number of diverse children’s books, especially non-fiction and historical stories. Yet when Lee & Low repeated the survey five years later, there was only a slight increase in black-centric stories.

According to the NPD Group, sales of children’s and young adult fiction and nonfiction are up 17% this year, compared to the 2019 pre-pandemic benchmark.

It wasn’t until the 2020 civil unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd that the publishing industry really started doing more, Lennertz said. The number of non-fiction children’s books based on true stories from black history began to increase, and adult books about race like Nikole Hannah-Jones’. The 1619 Project and Ibram X. Kendi How to be an anti-racist now boast companion books like born on the Water and anti-racist babyrespectively.

“Book publishing is a business,” said Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, founder of the Philadelphia African American Children’s Book Fair. In the years since the Black Lives Matter movement, the fair has more than doubled in size. “We talk more openly about black lives and serious topics now. Children’s books are part of this revolution.

The revolution is not welcomed by all. Many school districts in Pennsylvania and across the country are banning books that humanize the experiences of LGBTQ+ children and explain the details of black experiences, which some white parents say leave kids feeling guilty. 2019 book by Pittsburgh native Kelly Starling Lyons Sing a Song: How “Raise Every Voice and Sing” Inspired Generations was among 456 books banned last year in Pennsylvania’s Central York School District. The books were reinstated after a successful student protest.

“Today’s children’s books offer an inclusive view of American history,” said Lyons, one of the co-founders of The Brown Bookshelf, an advocacy group that promotes the work of children’s book authors from around the world. color. “That scares some people.”

Even famous parents are among the authors creating the books they wish they had growing up, some have said. The series of children’s books by actress Jamie Lee Curtis, including Today I feel stupid encourages self-esteem. Chapter book series by actor and musician Cheech Marin cheech follows the silly events of a Latino school bus driver named Cheech. Lupita Nyong’o’s book, Sulwe, is about a dark-skinned little girl who wishes she had lighter skin. Hota Kotb talks about the power of adoption. Ciara and Russell Wilson and Serena Williams both encourage kids to dream big.

“Children can manipulate the material. Their minds are open, they don’t prejudge,” said Lennertz, who believes children’s books that feature diverse characters will lead to a better society. “And if the cop [who killed George Floyd] read a book that humanized black children 20 years ago? Imagine how different our country would be.

Here are a few books by authors with Philadelphia ties who are helping children’s literary renaissance.


A long-time Philadelphia teacher, Hall Adelmann watched children deal with feelings of guilt, change and fear for years. The child of parents who screamed a lot, she knew what they were going through. She released her first book, My Silent Ship: When They Discuss, in 2018 about a little boy who travels to an imaginary boat amid loud arguments from his parents. Next is a series of children’s books about big feelings starting with Way beyond madness, about a little girl who navigates all the feelings during a particularly difficult day. She has written eight books. “Children need love,” Adelman said. “They need to be heard, to know that their feelings are important and that they are not alone.”

Entrepreneur and mum Dawn Chavous was saddened when her eldest son told her he wasn’t special after the two watched the Disney film Moana. “He didn’t think he was special because he couldn’t fly like one of the characters in the movie,” said Chavous, who lives in SouthPhilly. “My husband and I told him he was special all the time.” She started to write, You are special, a collection of affirmations that she turned into a children’s book and was published this year by South Carolina-based hybrid publisher Palmetto Publishing. His message: “If someone says something about you that isn’t true, ignore it. Children need to know that they are special, that they are wonderful and that they can do anything. They just need to shake themselves off.

ABC News Live presenter Linsey Davis was tired of seeing more animals than black children in picture books. “Trying to find books for my son with characters that look like him was tough outside of February,” said Davis, who grew up outside Philadelphia in Moorestown, NJ. She decided to write a series of whimsical children’s stories featuring black and brown children. His first book, The world is awakehas been published by Zonderkidz Books in 2018 and celebrates daily blessings. His most recent, How high do Iheaven ? helps children cope with the death of loved ones, an issue especially relevant now in the wake of COVID-19 and endless gun violence. “I wanted to give the kids hope and comfort,” Davis said. “It’s not ‘goodbye’ – it’s ‘see you later’.”

Actor Brian Klugman grew up in Northeast Philadelphia with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. “I had a lot of feelings of shame and embarrassment,” said Los Angeles-based Klugman, who previously starred in Castle. “I wanted to write the book that I would have liked to have had when I was a child. You Are you, is Klugman’s ode to self-love. “Self-love is at the root of all our challenges,” he said. Her message to children: “The things we want to change are often our greatest strengths.

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow’s first picture book Mom’s khimar, featured a little Muslim girl playing dress-up with her mother’s scarves. This was part of the Central York School District’s book ban. The second book from the Germantown-based author, your name is a songis about a little girl whose teacher and classmates can’t pronounce her name – Kora-jalimuso (KO-rah-DJAA-lee-MOO-so) – until she teaches them to sing it. This book won a Newbery Medal, the Coretta Scott King Author Award and the Kirkus Prize for Literature for Young Readers. Thompkins-Bigelow’s third book, Abdul’s story, about a young man with a learning disability, was released earlier this year. “It’s disturbing that people want to ban people like me from existing in a book,” Thompkins-Bigelow said. “Do you mind if your kids see me? There are no explicit messages in my books; they are only presentations of people who exist.

Former TV presenter Janet Zappala was volunteering at a Southern California horse farm when she met the 3,000-pound steer, Guapo. She decided to turn her story into a picture book Guapo’s Giant Heart: The True Story of the Calf that continued to grow about the importance of kindness. “We have to look to each other, not each other,” said Zappala, who used to live in Wynnewood but now lives in California. “This book is my way of reminding people of the importance of treating each other with kindness,” she said. A sequel to Guapo’s story will be released next year.